Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, German auteur Werner Herzog’s gritty, surreal treatise on corruption and addiction, makes little attempt to win over its audience yet is strangely watchable, with a compelling anti-hero, absurd humor and lashings of suspense.
The film, which superficially draws on Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film of the same name, opens amid the chaos of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana. Police officers Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) and partner Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) are taking the opportunity to cover up a recent act of corruption when they come across a convict drowning in a jail cell. The partners joke about letting him drown, but Terence decides to save him, garnering a back injury in the process, which the doctor later informs him will be permanent.
Terence is promoted to lieutenant for his heroism. Six months on, he’s as corrupt as ever, but now addicted to painkillers, including cocaine, looking for every opportunity to score, whether raiding confiscated property or extorting clubbers.
At the same time, he’s just started investigating a case about a murdered immigrant family from Senegal, which is likely the work of drug lord Big Fate (rap star Xzibit). As his actions grow more extreme, the viewer is pressed to wonder whether Terence will manage to solve the case before his bad behavior catches up with him.
Veteran filmmaker Herzog’s (Rescue Dawn, Nosferatu the Vampyre) works are known for their quirky, conflicted protagonists and explorations of the limitations of Western society. Bad Lieutenant delivers on both counts.
Terence is often abhorrent, more villain than hero. He’s worse than most of the criminals he chases. He’s hooked on drugs, gambling and women, and prone to violent and erratic acts. Nothing is taboo – he teams with a drug baron to feed his habit and pay off debts, he offers his prostitute girlfriend up to thugs, he even tortures two elderly women for information.
Aside from an unnaturally smooth face that negates his 46 years, Cage is excellently cast. Love him or hate him, he’s definitely taken on interesting parts in his career, from hangdog lovable (It Could Happen to You) and mournfully saccharine (City of Angels) to despicable (Face/Off).
Sometimes his quirky approach to acting drags down the film (see squeaky voice in Peggy Sue Got Married), but here, despite his audacity, he keeps it real. Sadly, you can believe that someone like him exists – and sometimes, even more disturbingly, you find yourself rooting for him.
The supporting players turn in similarly bizarre yet believable performances. Eva Mendes as hooker Frankie Donnenfield is sultry and damaged, and she and Terence have an interesting, affectionate dynamic – they certainly seem to deserve each other.
Xzibit, as the main villain of the piece, seems far more reasonable than Terence, which sums up the film’s iconoclastic stance. Val Kilmer, on the other hand, as Stevie, is hinted to be a few more steps over the line than Terence, which is one of the few aspects that make the latter seem heroic.
The film’s mix of hyper-realism and surrealism is enforced by the grainy, hand-held camerawork. At first, you feel like you’re following a police officer on his day-to-day activities around the Louisiana bayou to Biloxi, Mississippi, and then the weirdness gradually builds to a crescendo that also serves to convey Terence’s increasingly addled state of mind. It’s alternately suspenseful, thrilling, hilarious and sickening. Herzog evidently has a reptile fetish, inserting a few mad sequences involving crocodiles and iguanas that may or may not be Terence’s drug-induced hallucinations.
For a while it seems that the film, like Terence, is on a purely madcap, destructive bent, with no end goal, which is likely due to Herzog’s penchant for improvisation. Just after the half-way point, the action drags, and you’ll find yourself wondering if you can be bothered to continue watching. But, toward the finale, like its protagonist, the film adopts a circular pattern, finishing up where it began, with a measure of resolution for the characters.
It’s not completely satisfying, but it is cinematic, leaving the viewer with much to chew on about the nature of corruption, and its seeming inevitability, and the way addiction continues to loom like a shadow over those first caught in its claws.
And without preaching, it also hints at the desperation of the Katrina survivors, whose challenging existence before and after the disaster has provided fertile ground for men like Terence and Big Fate.
Verdict: Not for the faint-hearted, but if you stick with this demanding crime drama, you’ll be rewarded with a visceral, refreshingly offbeat cinematic experience.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
First Look Studios, 121 minutes
Directed by Werner Herzog
Produced by Edward R. Pressman
Written by William Finkelstein
Starring Nicolas Cage. Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Xzibit